India saw 115 internet shutdowns in 2020, the highest number for any country in the world. Yemen, which reported the second highest number, saw just five shutdowns.
But the problem isn’t uniform across India, a study has found.
The likelihood of internet shutdowns in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party is more than 250% higher than non-BJP ruled states, and the trend is only increasing over time, according to an analysis of data from 2012 to the first quarter of 2020 by Kris Ruijgrok, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam.
Ruijgrok conducted the study as an Information Controls Fellow with the Open Technology Fund, an United States-based nonprofit that “aims to support global internet freedom technologies”.
During any given month, the study found, the probability of an internet shutdown in a district administered by the BJP is 3%. In contrast, the corresponding number in a non-BJP ruled district is 0.8%.
The exclusion of Jammu and Kashmir, which is prone to internet shutdowns, has only limited impact on the results: it brings down the probability for BJP districts to 1.7%, as opposed to 0.4% for non-BJP districts.
This data is borne out by the geographical break-up of internet shutdowns in the country. “The BJP is traditionally less powerful in India’s Southern states, which – coincidentally or not – is also the region where shutdowns seldom occur,” notes the study.
Higher average, higher peak in BJP states
On an average, the number of districts affected per month by an internet shutdown in non-BJP ruled states is 2.7. The average, however, balloons up to 9.6 districts for BJP-ruled states, a significant three-and-a-half fold increase.
Taking Jammu and Kashmir out of the equation, again, has no significant impact on the trend. The average changes to 1.37 and 5.06 districts for non-BJP and BJP states respectively.
Even the intensity of internet shutdowns is higher for BJP-ruled states.
The maximum number of districts simultaneously reporting internet shutdowns in the same month in non-BJP ruled states was 22. This happened on three occasions: August 2013, August 2017, and April 2018.
In August 2013, Hindu-Muslim clashes had broken out in Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir.
The August 2017 shutdown was in Punjab in connection to the violence in the wake of the Guru Ram Rahim Singh verdict.
The shutdown in April 2018 was also in Punjab following clashes between Hindutva outfits and Dalit groups in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that was seen by many as a dilution of the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.
On the other hand, in BJP-ruled states, there were six months when more than 40 districts were affected by internet shutdowns in the same period, shows data provided by the researcher to Scroll.in.
The highest number was in December 2019, when internet was cut off in 76 districts as protests against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act besieged the country. The Act expedites Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The 76 districts included existing restrictions in 10 Jammu and Kashmir districts.
This finding, the study concludes, “fits the general pattern of observed democratic backsliding under the BJP that has occurred at the national level since the party’s rise to power”.